#Videogame #review #Hellblade @NinjaTheory #horror

Let’s get it out on the table: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the type of game I would’ve wanted Silent Hills to be. Not the exact game, mind you–I’d expect an SH installment to have more endings–but the degree to which Ninja Theory lovingly, carefully dropkicks the player into Senua’s broken mind is nothing short of majestic.

A significant degree of Hellblade’s marketing focused on capturing psychosis correctly (and, of course, the beautiful graphics). It’s great to see a game developer put so much care into the construction of a game’s plot, setting, and characterization that they consulted with psychologists and the mentally ill alike.

This care pays off quite well. Hellblade is full of both subtle moments of psychological tension, and direct freight-train-to-the-face moments of genuine horror, where the player doubts not only reality, but Senua herself.

Most are already aware of this, so I’ll address the most obvious element: the warning in the beginning of the game that repeated failure will result in permadeath, erasing the save file. Some were angered by this announcement, while others were angered by the fact that, apparently, no such system exists. You can die many times, but as far as anyone’s been able to figure out, nothing will permakill you.

That’s actually one of the most genius parts of this game. By terrorizing the player with such a deception, Ninja Theory instills the same existential dread Senua herself feels at all waking moments: that her failure will result in the destruction of Dillion’s soul, and her own being dragged down to Hel, her existence erased by the fact that there’s no one left to mourn or miss her.

Granted the savvy player might realize this very early on, because the warning says ‘failure,’ not death, will result in her destruction, and the black rot that symbolizes this failure grows during plot events, not so much after deaths. It took me roughly four deaths–all at the hands of the God of Illusion–to deconstruct this otherwise brilliant device and remove a significant amount of my own tension from the experience.

Hellblade, as a game, is broken into two parts: combat and puzzle solving. Ninja Theory is known for precise combat, but those who were a fan of their take on the Devil May Cry series will be a little disappointed. While the combat here is rendered well and feels very realistic to Senua’s characterization, those who fell in love with the fluidity of DMC’s action-packed, bass-thumping, mayhem-driven combat system will find Hellblade a bit formulaic and repetitive.

The puzzles are very interesting perspective-based events that fit well into the story, but unfortunately, the long puzzle-solving stretches, limited combat variance, and intensely narrative nature of this game limit the replay value. That first run through, though, is god damn amazing. 

Ultimately, how much value you get out of subsequent playthroughs will depend on whether you want to turn the ‘auto’ combat difficulty to hard, if you have any collectibles to round up, and if you played with headphones on the first time (In the words of Shia LaBeouf: DO IT!).

However, this game’s first run through alone is worth the thirty dollars it currently costs. Between the graphics so beautiful you’ll literally stop playing just to look around, and the heart-stopping moments of Senua’s descent into madness, Hellblade is easily one of the most ambitious and well-executed games I’ve played in my entire life. While I’ll be waiting for a DMC 2 (unpopular opinion, I know), I sincerely hope they get license to make the next Silent Hill. They’d nail it. No doubt at all.

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Resident Evil Revelations 2: Just Another Cookie Cutter

Hi everybody,

Much like last week, where I talked about how SOMA is a wonderful experience, just not true horror, I’m here to discuss the (probably not surprising) pitfalls of one of the latest Resident Evil games. Spoilers follow.

As before, I’ll say some good stuff so no one thinks I’m just here to bash: Like its predecessors, it knows exactly what people play it for. The combat is straightforward, the dodge mechanics work well and can even be upgraded (unlike the garbage reaction-dodge of Revelations 1), and the graphics are about as good as I would expect from a spin-off expected to play on both the PS4 and the Vita.

The main pitfalls are the same that this series has been suffering from for years now. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to capture the same claustrophobic helplessness that the original Resident Evil showed off in every fixed camera angles, because now, we have an over-the-shoulder view of bigger, more textured, open environments meant to showcase design creativity and processing power. I’m not begrudging a nice view (check out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, some of the Mass Effect series settings, or SOMA if you really want to ogle).

There is another big part of helplessness that the series now overlooks, and that’s the plot. The first game wasn’t giving you some overpowered super agent, it put you in control of a regular human being. STARS team Alpha begins the game panicking, visibly and audibly flustered, worried that some of their agents are dead and others missing, and straight-up freak out whenever a new horror comes their way. Jill Valentine even pukes after curb-stomping a zombie’s brains out. The few jokes were obviously failed attempts to diffuse tension (or, in some cases, amazingly bad dubs).

Revelations Two, meanwhile, is full of out-of-places jokes. After a statue explodes, Claire quips, “And we all had a blast.” She and Moira Burton (Barry Burton’s daughter, for those who don’t know) enter a building, which almost immediately explodes as well, because the RE crew can’t go anywhere without going full Michael Bay. After escaping by jumping out a window and falling a hundred feet or so into a river, Moira says, “Was it good for you too?” because the already over-masculine episode three, in which everything explodes, needed to top itself with a forced reference to lesbians.

That’s not to mention the fact that Barry’s “partner” is a little girl. Any horror fan would assume automatically that she was evil, and those horror fans would be right. Without explaining the cliche backstory too heavily, the game’s main bad-girl, Alex Wesker (who is only so named because the writers probably thought we’d be like, “Oh no, Wesker! I’m screwed!” even though Albert was the only REAL Wesker) wants to download her personality into a body that has conquered fear.

…except she says several times that she’d already conquered fear, so there was no point in her doing this.

But there is something far worse about this game than the fact that the hum-drum, run-of-the-mill supervillain who wants to control the whole world (like we haven’t heard that one before!) spouts generic drivel on loop, like, “I have earned the right to become a god” and “I am true. You are false!” The main problem is that no one is afraid. Sure, the game’s virus, the T-Phobos, so named because originality is more dead than the zombies here, would’ve killed anyone who became truly afraid (except Barry, who was not exposed). I get that. The writers had this nice little design in there that meant we could have Moira, an unarmed, untrained, unathletic woman in her early twenties, face down armies of horrible mutants and fifteen-foot-tall B.O.W.s and then end a battle by yelling, “Go jump on a dildo!” (because masturbation, apparently).

Fact is, there’s no real fear if the characters aren’t also afraid. I’m not worried about Barry. I’m not concerned for Claire. Barry makes it explicitly clear that “I’ve got this,” and I believe him. I’m not even worried about the little girl. None of them are at any risk of dying, and that’s obvious. They’re freakin superheroes at this point, and when their inhuman ability to get hit with a two-ton battle ax, then get up and sprint away like nothing happened, fails them, they’ve got bad jokes and an infinite rocket launcher to make sure the final boss goes up in flames.

(Aside: There were a number of self-referential jokes in this game, including one about the rocket launcher, that worked well, and I absolutely loved them.)

A note to all you fancy-pants developers out there: give us someone we can love, or give us someone faceless. We need real people, not superhumans. That’s why Borderlands and Left 4 Dead work so well: It really doesn’t matter who you play as. You pick a character for their abilities, and the plot remains the same.

Conversely, a great game for balance like that, weirdly, was the Metroid Prime trilogy. Samus, bounty hunter, stranded on a foreign planet, no power ups, no way to leave–awesome. It made sense that there was no character development, because she was in near-complete isolation. Only Corruption really brought in other characters, and something more along those lines would’ve made a great follow-up, or even the start of a new series (unlike Other M, which was such a complete catastrophe that I don’t think I can write a post on it without Nintendo suing me).

What do you think? How much does plot matter to you in horror? Would you prefer a great narrative, at the expense, perhaps, of some action? Or do you like games where you could be anyone at all, another generic Joe Shmo or Simon Garrett, with little to no emotions to get in the way? Let me know below!

SOMA: Great game, not horror.

Hi everyone,

I’m back today to discuss my thoughts on SOMA, a recently released video game from Frictional Games, the studio behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, among others. For starters, I’ve been playing on the PS4, but won’t be talking much on the system specs, because the forums show ALL the versions of this game have terrible bugs, and despite the 1.04 patch, I got jammed up several times. I know I’m not the only one.

Before I launch into this, let me say that I’ll be trying to avoid spoilers (no promises!) and that I do love this game. It’s beautiful, fairly unique, and overall, I’d give it 8.5 out of 10 stars, with points lost due to the bugs and the often repetitive “Oh look, an enemy, let me hide for ten minutes” stealth mechanic.

As a gamer, I love a good survival horror experience, and when this game was marketed as one of the most pants-wettingly scary best scary games on the market, I had to check it out. Problem is, the writer in me can’t overlook some glaring flaws.

Let’s start off with the obvious one: nothing about this game is actually horrifying. Sure, there were some moments where I was backed into a corner, praying something wouldn’t hurt me, but the original element of the stealth–the fact that looking at an enemy can cause them to ‘see’ you and attack, even if that enemy is blind–takes the fear out of it. These are some grotesquely beautiful creatures that inspire disgust even when holding still, but the player doesn’t get to feel that disgust, because looking at them causes distorted vision and near-immediate death. Let me tell you, kids, staring at a wall gets awful boring, awful fast.

Now, to the story itself. (All this takes place in the trailer/gameplay teaser, so it’s not a spoiler).

Simon, the protagonist and playable character, worked in a bookstore up until a car accident that took the life of a coworker and potential love interest. (Aside: There’s a plot hole here, in that it appears he crashed because he was distractedly looking at the radioactive tracer fluid he’d need to take for the upcoming brain scan… a scan he didn’t need until AFTER the crash, meaning he wouldn’t have had the tracer in the first place.) He goes in for the brain scan in 2015 and wakes up in an underwater base full of sentient machines in 2105, roughly. While it’s possible to get knocked out within the first few minutes, most players will be smart enough not to open the door where, if one listens, a pissed off machine is clearly rampaging inside. (I, as a virtual masochist, opened it anyway).

Whether you get face-punched or not, the first real robot you encounter is peaceful. It has a female personality (we can argue about whether or not robots really have genders later), and appears to be injured. Simon can try talking to it, but it only speaks when he unplugs its life support tentacles. When it protests, begging him not to pull the second, he doesn’t respond; the player has no choice but to pull the second, killing it.

Maybe it’s the science nerd transhumanist in me, but the LAST thing I would do is kill off a sentient machine, especially if I was in an unfamiliar environment. He kills off the first potential ally he meets–and that’s not counting the fact that, to him, this should be a medical marvel, a technological breakthrough that, in his day, would’ve become a global phenomena overnight. What a fantastic way to alienate the gamer and show that this generic male protagonist isn’t really invested in anything but his own progress.

Now, let’s try a fair approach: he probably assumed it was just a fancy robot, much like the Construct that tries to kill him in the next room. However, when he meets Carl Semken, another robot, which can talk and clearly believes itself to be human, he either kills Carl by turning off the power so he can escape (a move that brings the Construct back, complicating his progress), or by overloading a circuit, causing Carl terrible, unending pain, but allowing him to move forward unobstructed. Simon’s options are to go sociopathic or Kevorkian, and he only briefly dwells on this while talking to Catherine, a researcher at another base trying to assist him. Neither is a good choice, both completely ignore whatever Carl might have wanted, had the robot known the options, and Simon has about ten seconds worth of regret before shrugging it off.

Horror has been defined and redefined by countless people throughout the ages, but to me, it boils down to this: Does the story, or do the monsters, trigger an actual, emotional reaction? Do you feel horrified? Because this game never once made me think, “SIMON, NO! THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!” (Except for when he says to Catherine, “How could you do this? You’re fucking disgusting!” because he can’t grasp basic and already-made-clear scientific principles.)

Truly horrifying moments abound in a wide array of games (spoilers do follow here). Take Silent Hill 2, when we learn James killed his wife; Silent Hill 3 has plenty, like when Heather’s father is murdered, or the god devours her from within if the player messes up at the church, or she kills the detective in one of the alternate endings; Bioshock, with the Would You Kindly? reveal; The Walking Dead, season one, when Clementine (potentially) kills Lee; The Last of Us, when Ellie is kidnapped; even the Arkham games, which aren’t technically horror, have horrifying scenes, like in Asylum, when Titan turns already dangerous superhumans into insane, rampaging monstrosities, or City and Knight, when The Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman and rips away his control (briefly).

That’s not to mention that, in all those instances, you can actually look at your enemies. Especially Pyramid Head. *shudders, runs*. I’ll come back to some of those games in later posts, because I didn’t particularly like SH2’s James Sunderland either, and Bioshock’s protag is almost entirely without identity, but at least the real tipping point came at the very end, whereas Simon, of SOMA, never gave me a reason to like him in the first place.

Like I said above, excellent game overall. There are some tense scenes, beautiful graphics, and thought-provoking discussions of whether sentience is synonymous with life, as well as (obviously) if taking something off life support qualifies as killing. I do recommend playing this game, I just wish these studious would take a little more time giving us memorable characters. Nothing says true horror like coming to love one of the characters and seeing their whole world fall to pieces.

And damn it, let me see the monsters!